- Title: When Breathe Becomes Air
- Author: Paul Kalanithi
- Genre: Autobiography
- Pages: 208
- Rating: 4 stars
Have you ever asked yourself what you would do if you happened to be diagnosed with a terminal illness and you only had a short time left to live? Most of us try to imagine it but it is only after you have lived it that you can truly understand the impact. This book is made even more special because the author was a doctor, a neurosurgeon at that, one who had close contact with death and a lot of judgement calls with regards to patients (He also mentions that he was attracted to this particular field because of its intertwining of the brain and consciousness and its intertwining of life and death). Only the physician could truly understand the physiological spiritual man. His relationship with statistics changed once he became one.
What would you consider important to occupy your time if you only had, say a year, month, week to live? Would you continue as you were? Would you pursue a long held dream now that time is running out? Would you focus on strengthening your human connections?
In When breathe becomes air by Paul Kalanithi, we see how he shows and argues through his own life how direct experience of life and death questions is essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them.
In the introduction, there is a line that caught my eye and hooked me to this book: “Be ready, be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words”. I was ready to be awed and I was.
He talks about his childhood, his love for books, his appreciation for his parents, the love of his life and how this illness saved his marriage, how he came to be a neurosurgeon after abandoning literature, the diagnosis that changed his life forever and making life and death decisions(both his own and for his patients). How medical school sharpened his understanding of the relationship between meaning, life and death. This book brings clearly to the forefront that managing a terminal illness in a family requires love, vulnerability, kindness, generosity and gratefulness. Time will feel less like a ticking clock and more like a state of being.
The second part of the book is however very technical; full of medical jargon; and might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I found myself googling a lot of the terminologies used in order to keep up with the pace of the book. A funny(or maybe not) part of the book is how he explains his first time dissecting a cadaver as a medical student in Yale(look out for that one)
Perharps by coincidence, I read the epilogue by his wife as I was listening to perfect by ed sheeran and it was just perfect. I actually cried. I know. This book is so raw and uplifting. It will change your relationship with illness, with death, with the anticipation of a shortened life and what you would do faced with these glaring circumstances.
My greatest takeaway from this lovely book is that, in the face of mortality, you will find yourself wondering if you lived a meaningful life, if you made the right choices. The prose in this book is unforgettable. After reading this book, you might feel a bit inadequate. It’s honest and truthful in a way that will take your breath away. This is a necessary book to read. Death may be a one-time event, but living with a terminal illness is a process. One that is brought out beautifully in this book.